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Maturation, not accolades, marks Rix's final season

As he stood in the tunnel, waiting to walk to midfield and shake hands with coach Bobby Bowden on senior night, Florida State quarterback Chris Rix smiled and hoped for the best.

Then he got it.

Cheers, not jeers from the crowd.

"To hear that reaction, I was so humbled by that and I just felt so fortunate," he said. "I think they saw through the tough times and the struggles that I didn't give up. I didn't quit. No, I didn't win a national championship. No, I didn't win a Heisman Trophy. As much as I would have liked to have done those things. But I think people saw something deeper in me and it was more than football."

To him, that's not a bad legacy.

Far better than being the guy who overslept and missed an exam that led to his suspension for the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Or being the guy who foolishly parked his car in a handicapped space. Twice in a week. Or being the guy who'd pull some attention-grabbing stunts. Or being the guy who has been as apt to look brilliant as he has error-prone, especially against Miami.

"All of those things left memories in peoples' heads that were kind of negative," said Bowden, who concedes the play of the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Rix has been "feast or famine" and his career marked by "probably more ups and downs than any starter" he has had. "About the only way you can overcome it is win every game."

He didn't, though a stellar performance against West Virginia in today's Gator Bowl would leave a good last impression worthy of more cheers. But win or lose, Bowden, a staunch defender of his oft-criticized quarterback, said he always will remember him as one of the best athletes he has had and "one of the finest young men that we've had at Florida State."

Others who have seen the man behind the mask share that sentiment.

"I really like Chris and I think the world of him," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who as FSU's offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach recruited Rix. "He's a kid, trying to grow into a man and I think you have to give the guy some credit. I know it's not been an easy time for him in a lot of areas of his life."

Rix's mother died of cancer when he was 7 and, in the past few years, he has had to deal with the health issues of his father, Chris Sr. Rix politely won't elaborate, but said his dad is doing okay.

"He's not perfect. He's still trying to improve his life and get some things figured out and I'm supporting him in that," said Rix, 23. "He's my dad. I love him. I just hope he's around for many, many years so we can enjoy our life together."

Though his father moved to Tallahassee from California at the start of the 2003 season, Rix accepted an invitation from Ron Miller, the pastor at Morning Star Christian Church and a former FSU basketball player, to live with him, his wife Cindy and their children, Josiah, 4, and Ethan, 18 months. (All living arrangements, such as how much he would pay for rent and groceries, had to be put in writing to conform with NCAA rules.)

"When I first met Chris through our Champions for Christ program, I saw so much of myself, a younger Ron Miller in him," Miller said. "It was like I did a flashback in my mind to 14 years ago when I was at FSU as a freshman on the basketball team. Some of the things I had struggled through and had been through and a lot of the lessons in life I'd learn through playing a sport at a major university, I felt like I could help him process some of the things he was dealing with."

He needed a stable home life and found it with the Millers. He was on a curfew, 11 p.m. during the week, midnight on the weekends. He even did a little babysitting, which often entailed putting in a Star Wars DVD or breaking out light sabers to play with.

"I've learned so much from being there and from Pastor Ron," Rix said. "He's helped keep me focused on the important things in my life that I've slipped up on in the past. It's meant constant and consistent accountability in everything that I do, from school to football and more importantly, in life and becoming a man."

Like most college-age students, he had a long way to go to that end. Unlike most, his maturation played out on a public stage through much of his own doing.

"I came in just so prideful, cocky, arrogant, full of myself, impressed with what I'd done in high school," he said. "But through experiences, through the trials and tribulations and through great times as well, I've learned a lot and I've grown up a lot."

He didn't sulk when he twice lost his starting job this season to Wyatt Sexton, first to an ankle injury, then to a poor first-half performance against Duke. He hasn't pointed fingers at his teammates and has shouldered much of the blame for losses.

"He's a man who has amazing character," senior tight end Paul Irons said. "He's been under a tremendous amount of pressure and still responds in the best way."

"Due to a few unfortunate events, the growth of Chris Rix has gone under the radar," echoed senior receiver Dominic Robinson. "There's a persona that's been created that isn't the reality of who he is."

Robinson has angrily yanked down derogatory signs about Rix on several occasions the past couple of seasons. He wouldn't waste the time if he didn't truly like and respect the guy.

"He's a great person, a very special person," said Fabian Walker, who didn't beat Rix out as starting quarterback in 2002 and 2003 and transferred to Valdosta State, where he led the Blazers past Pittsburg State 36-31 Dec. 11 in the Division II national title game. "I really enjoy talking to him and he's a person I want to stay in contact with."

"I've seen more than just the athlete in Chris," added junior center David Castillo said. "I feel privileged to be able to play with him."

That's not a bad legacy.